Timothy Mo, who as the son of wealthy Hong Kong Chinese attended Oxford, is a superbly gifted writer but a difficult man who has long fought with his publishers. Once a favourite of the English literary set, he fell out of favour. In later life he has produced a masterwork, Pure. Mo had always wondered why a dynamic art form such as fiction had failed to confront the single most pressing issue of the age, the minds and motivations of Muslim fundamentalists. With a tide of jihad sweeping the world, the question became ever more pressing. In Pure Timothy Mo uses the device of character. He pits an ice addicted yaba addled Bangkok lady boy, a freelance entertainment journalist called Snooky, “Snooky was lonely because she was smart”, into the world of mujaheddin training camps in southern Thailand. Co-opted as a spy, there she grows a beard, participates in forays into the world of jihad in Indonesia, and reports to her minder, caught between the hidden, complex worlds of intelligence operatives and Muslim jihadists. Thanks to fights with his publishers, this book has never received the attention it deserves. Simply put: Pure is a must read.
In one of the few serious reviews given to the book, Mark Lawson of The Guardian wrote:
In many senses, the Anglo-Chinese novelist Timothy Mo is, among his generation of British writers, the one who got away. Omitted from the 1983 Granta Best Young Writers list that included near-contemporaries Amis, Barnes, Rushdie and McEwan, he rapidly out-performed most rivals with a 75% Booker prize short-list hit-rate from his first four novels but failed to take the final prize with either Sour Sweet, An Insular Possession or The Redundancy of Courage. Then, after a financial row with traditional UK publishers, Mo left for the Far East, from where self-published novels have arrived at ever longer intervals.
A decade has passed between Renegade and Mo’s sixth novel Pure, which perhaps reveals the author’s ignorance of – or indifference to – the Brit Lit scene by re-using the title of a novel that won Andrew Miller last year’s Costa prize. It would be a thrilling moment for cultural statisticians if one of the leading British book prizes were to be won in consecutive years by different novels with the same title, and the possibility cannot be discounted because Mo’s book is a thrilling reminder of what we have been missing during his exile.
For the last two decades, novelists in the west have suspected that the “necessary subject” (as Nadine Gordimer once described apartheid) is the rise of Islamist terrorism and the spread of Arab nationalism. Most English-writing authors, though, have concluded that they lacked either the background, languages or – after what happened to Salman Rushdie for The Satanic Verses, a novel that seems increasingly prophetic – guts to tackle the topic. One exception is John le Carré, whose example Mo is possibly acknowledging by casting Pure in the form of a spy story.
There are certainly echoes of Le Carré characters in Victor, an elderly Oxbridge don whose fictional Brecon College has numbered among its students many future Arab potentates and several spooks, including Victor himself. Surely, though, only Mo could have imagined the figure who alternates most of the novel’s narration with Victor: Snooky, a 6ft-tall Thai lady boy and movie critic.
A consistent joy of the book is Mo’s voice – or rather, voices. The cascade of multilingual puns and pan-global cultural references nods to the work of Anthony Burgess, although that writer came to the far east as more of an outsider, and there is a frequent sense in Pure that Mo is setting down sentences that only he has the linguistic and cultural knowledge to write.
For example, although Snooky’s sections of the text are technically first-person, they are usually recited in the third because the Siamese habit is apparently to substitute your own first name for “I”, in a manner restricted in the west to professional sportsmen. We also learn that the words for “far” and “near” in Thai are identical, differentiated by one being spoken “lower and more emphatic”, and that the Siamese word for vagina is “he”. Snooky, though, is confused when someone speaks “in the Southern language, quite incomprehensible if you were a speaker of standard Bangkok Siamese”. In the cheeky keenness of its ear, Pure often resembles being a student on a Berlitz course taught by James Joyce.
A novel built on verbal riffs can risk becoming an exercise in virtuostic surfaces, but there is depth here as well; in both the learned references to a century of eastern history and the thoughtful interplay between the religious beliefs of Islamic characters and the Anglo-Catholic faith of Victor.
Traditional publishing houses will argue that Mo has put himself at a disadvantage by rejecting conventional editing and marketing. And, while even editions from some of the classiest houses these days sometimes seem to have gone direct from writer’s desk to book-shelf, there are moments when you wonder if Pure could have benefitted from tougher editing, both in its periodic rambles and a distracting attitude to fact. When Victor misquotes a line by Yeats or appears to get wrong the chronology of the second world war, it’s impossible to be sure if Mo is dramatising sloppiness or enacting it.
These, though, are small concerns about a return that, for most of its duration, should have serious readers on their feet cheering. Separated from other British writers first by background and then geography, Mo has also become increasingly isolated in his willingness to take risks. He shows a daring with structure, language and subject matter that is matched in recent fiction only by Philip Hensher, whose Scenes From Early Life: A Novel should be one of Mo’s rivals on this year’s literary prize lists. It would be a great shame if Mo’s deliberate distance from this country and its publishing structures mean that Pure will come to be seen as one that got away.